Monday, December 18, 2006
Are we really prepared for the flu?
"The nation is nowhere near as prepared as we should be for bioterrorism, bird flu and other health disasters," says the Trust for America's Health, a prominent group that promotes public health and emergency preparedness.
Just one example: During even a moderate flu pandemic, half the states would run out of hospital beds within two weeks, the group says. The news isn't all bad. For example, every state has at least started planning for a flu disaster. In 2003, just 13 states had even considered the possibility.
On a related note, health officials from around the country gathered recently to discuss what they might do to slow a pandemic. There's a lot of talk about 1918, which saw the worst influenza pandemic ever recorded - though not as bad, we're cautioned, as the next one could be. In 1918, a new flu strain - which, by the way, mutated from a version found in chickens - killed at least 100 million people around the world in a matter of months. 600,000 people died in the United States.
New research, led by University of Michigan historian Howard Markel, examines how 45 major cities handled the outbreak. St. Louis closed schools and banned public gatherings when the city still had relatively few influenza cases. Philadelphia did the same things, but not until the disease was burning through its population like a brush fire. Everywhere, the pattern was the same. The scope of the catastrophe could be explained almost solely by how quickly health officials moved to prevent large gatherings.
Most people think our best hope against killer flu is finding a vaccine, or the right medicine. But even today, it may be more important to keep from being exposed in the first place. Would your boss let you stay home, or telecommute, if an outbreak lasted months? How long would your child's school stay open?
Better to think about these questions now, than when a crisis is in full swing.
You can see whether the Trust For America's Health thinks your state is ready, at healthyamericans.org
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